Thursday, July 16, 2009

The nature of Good

Over the past four days, I've been on a business trip to Georgia. During that period, I have managed to read most of Jacob Needleman's 2008 book "Why Can't We Be Good?"

This book is a superior piece of work by an expert philosopher, but, far more importantly, by a real human being. I highly recommend it to all readers.

In the book, he presents an idea we have encountered before here in this space. An essential idea that cannot be escaped in examining the question of morality, good, evil, and inner work. He expresses it in his own language, of course, and in the eloquent manner that only a man with his education and experience can. Nonetheless, however the idea is expressed (and I certainly do use my own language for it) we always come to the same point of work.

Lists of rules about how we ought to behave and treat other people are useless. They do not constitute a true morality.

I mentioned this in a blog post in 2007 when I was in Cambodia touring Angkor Wat. Our guide, a terrific guy, was (unsurprisingly) well-versed in Buddhist lore, and able to cite long lists of behavior required of Buddhists. The lists tell us what is wrong with us, what we ought to do to fix it, how we ought to behave while we are fixing it, and how it will be after everything is fixed. Okay, let's be fair. Every religion works more or less this way. Right?

If only it were that simple.

The difficulty that man confronts in the context of good and morality is that good and morality rooted solely in an intellectual understanding are both weak and relative. It is only by planting the root of this question firmly in the ground of Being that anything meaningful results. The chaos we find ourselves surrounded by in contemporary society is a direct result of a failure to understand this.

In order to understand this more fully, we must understand what it means to have an organic sense of being.

Now, we may not have this sense all the time; we may only catch a fleeting glimpse of it, or perhaps we have just heard about it. At any rate, we must make it our aim. We must learn to dwell within this organic sense of being, this sense of self which can only arise as a consequence of the awakening of the organism to the need for work.

Right now, the organism doesn't really understand the work. Even if it awakens, it will still be ruled by biological forces. Well, we can't really help that. What we are meant to do, anyway, is not to fix that, but observe it.

The difference is that if the organism is awake, at least -- like the mind, which also wanders off in many directions -- it will be willing to contribute to the effort. And it is only as this awakening of the body takes place than any space at all can be prepared for the eventual arrival of real feeling.

Needleman is, in my opinion, heroically and unstintingly generous in offering us his own experience of this question. Of course, it is couched in language more suitable for the general public, and that is exactly as it should be. Nonetheless, he makes it quite clear that the root of all real morality must lie here within the connection between the mind and body.

I have a quite extraordinary experience when I was in Shanghai that was exactly of this order. It constituted a chance encounter with a prostitute in an elevator at the hotel I was staying at.

Now of course, like all ordinary males, I have plenty of sexual fantasies, and in my fantasies- which, I think, it might be unhealthy to suppress too much -- desirable women offer themselves to me, and I take lusty advantage of it. This is quite different to what actually happens in the real world, of course; I'm a slightly paunchy 53-year-old man. Hardly the stuff of any woman's dreams, mind you, (with the possible exception of my wife--I know I have played prominent roles in at least a few of her nightmares) but no matter how fat and ugly men are, they usually think they are fantastic and desirable. Unlike women, who, no matter how fantastic and desirable they are, usually think they are fat and ugly.

In any event, at my age, and with my looks, a prostitute in an elevator in Shanghai may be about as close as anything is going to come to my fantasies.

I wrote a poem about the experience which is posted on the compliquations poetry page. (scroll down to chinese poem #8)

The gist of it is that in the moment where the encounter actually took place, there was something in me that was immediately present which constituted a real morality. It was quite astonishing to see how instantly and clearly it manifested itself, exactly in accordance with, and in support of, every single thing that Jacob Needleman says about the question of objective, that is, organic, or real, morality.

When we are present, when our centers are working together, morality does not become a debate, a deliberation, or question. It presents itself honestly, solidly, and humanly without any hesitation whatsoever, and it makes a clear and irresolute decision regarding the situation which could never be arrived at if the centers were not working in harmony. Needleman gives several examples of his own in regard to this experience which I think are just wonderful.

How extraordinary, I think, to have an experience of this kind, to have the privilege of knowing such a truth within action, and then to encounter an entire book that lays the foundation for our understanding of morality directly at the feet of such experience.

The point, I think, is that experiences like this take the questions we have, and the lofty ideals we paste on things, and reduce them to something so simple, so utterly human, and so directly compassionate that we begin finally to understand that our intellect alone is incapable of mediating such transactions.

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.


  1. I agree: one of the finest "meals" I've ever had was when I devoured that book. Now, if only I can hope to assimilate it!

    Very funny: one reviewer on Amazon said about his books (paraphrasing): "The professor is very good at posing questions, but never gives us the answers." I laughed out loud!

    My only disappointment with the book has been having no one to discuss it with -- so I'm pleased you chose to write about it!

  2. I suppose ROFL is appropriate, all right!

  3. Lee, excuse the levity but. . , next to our unconsciousness, prostitution is a good demonstration of the law of gravity. And gravity has nothing to do with good/evil, except that it was a (Newtonian) apple that again causes our dilemma, isnt it?

    A book that might be relevant: "Coming to Our Senses", by M. Berman. Even though I never read it in entirety, its basis is how the somatic integration of "our bodies, ourselves" (to recycle the title of a different book) has been requistioned by certain sections or subcultures throughout history. Because of these forces or perhaps influences we are not able to reside healthily in our organic wholeness .
    In this regard, i've noticed an astounding propensity within myself to borrow "lock stock and barrel" whole little repertoires of physical mannerisms, modes of behaving, from out of the vaults of my 50 yrs plus personal history. These roles, physical postures, manifestations (ref. "In Search. ."), etc are a feat of beyond-biological evolution in perhaps a quantum ('quon'?) sense, because they make use of a past absorption of memory and then replay at the instant one needs them, but without intention/forethought.
    In contradistinction, it would seem in order to consciously work, I have to change organic time for myself, that is, going beyond just the breathing, but working on impressions; then "sense as an organic whole" the body as it operates in a role as 'cosmic apparatus for transforming of food'

    Another take on the stated need for us to have organic sense of being can be found at the now non-functioning 'Lifwynn Foundation'. org. It's a brief explanation of the theory of one of the originators of modern group therapy,Trigant Burrow. I cant give Burrow the same claim to fame as a spiritual path like Work carries for its teachers, but that is quite possibly simply because I havent much pored over his work.
    However, I can concur with your sentiment about Jacob Needleman's writings. I hope sometime to hear one of his lectures.


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